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Combustible cladding compliance – what’s on the outside is just as important as the inside

The issue of cladding combustibility was already well-known within the property industry in Australia following a fire at Melbourne Docklands’ Lacrosse Apartment in 2014,  however, it was the tragic loss of life and heart-breaking images from the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London that saw the issue embedded in the minds of the public.

The New South Wales and Victorian Governments have both made announcements in recent months that the removal of dangerous cladding will now be fast-tracked.

With approximately 400 buildings still assessed as non-compliant in NSW and up to 400 buildings now targeted to be rectified in Victoria over the next two years, there is a lot of work to be done to address the problem – as well as ongoing work for project teams to ensure new developments are future-proofed from cladding compliance and fire safety concerns.

 A close up of London’s Grenfell Tower following the fire in 2017

Experience makes all the difference

Root Partnerships (RP) has provided project management services on cladding replacement projects across the health, schools, university, residential and aviation sectors. Recently, RP has been engaged by a major recreational facility to project manage the replacement of cladding at their venue.

Senior Project Manager Cameron Laidlaw says due to the complexities of the regulations and technical issues involved, it is important to get an experienced project manager onboard early to fully understand the issues and the impact on the building operations.

“When looking at façade compliance, the client must understand that the external wall is defined by a number of materials, not just the very last material on the exterior,” says Cameron.

“Beyond the last few millimetres of cladding sheeting that may need to be replaced, the insulation, framing, internal lining, and other materials required for the wall performance must comply with the current building standards.”

Cameron says that rectifying all issues of non-compliance might seem overwhelming to some building owners, but the problem can be resolved successfully by an experienced project manager on behalf of their client.

“Bringing onboard a knowledgeable project manager will help clients navigate through the issues more effectively and efficiently to reach compliance in the optimal way,” he says, adding that fire safety is not the only criteria that a façade must meet.

When working on cladding replacement for a Melbourne hospital, RP was able to identify the risks to the client’s operations and instruct the Contractor to undertake specific actions to minimise them.

“In the case of the Melbourne hospital project, RP instructed that the laboratory walls had to be scanned to identify the exact location of all electrical wiring and in-wall services to ensure screw fitting would not penetrate vital service runs,” says Cameron, noting that the need to isolate these services during façade works often impacts large areas of the building operations and must be managed carefully.

“Also, vibration and noise testing was conducted to ensure minimal effects on the neonatal wards during removal and installation of cladding,” he says.

“These actions ensured the impact of the works was minimised so that the hospital could remain operational throughout.”

Knowledge and timing critical to success

For clients and project teams dealing with cladding compliance, the regulations can seem confusing, and some are not across the most recent regulations or they have differing expectations.

Senior Project Manager Justine Butler notes that some in the industry appear to assume that the combustible cladding concern only refers to aluminium composite cladding, but this issue also arises with other types of materials. Potential examples include composite metal cladding with mineral fibre or foam cores; multi-wall polycarbonate; wood fibre-plastic composite; wood fibre-melamine panels and plywood and timber cladding. In addition, the Australian Building Codes Board recently confirmed that high-build acrylic render systems need to comply with the NCC-BCA.

Justine adds that green walls also need to comply with the NCC-BCA requirements and will require a full fire-safety engineering assessment.

“The benefit of a knowledgeable project management team is that we’re experienced at engaging the right experts at the right stage of the project lifecycle and ensuring all parties are communicating effectively to deliver a cost effective, compliant outcome for our client,” says Justine. “This means taking into account all of our client’s needs from the overall look and design of the development to controlling costs, mitigating risk and minimising disruption to business operations.”

“Project managers must also ensure that consultants obtain early acceptance of a product test or compliance certificates by the project certifier,” she says.

For Cameron, it is important that consultants keep abreast of the latest NCC-BCA façade and combustibility requirements when incorporating any products into a design solution, and for project teams to identify and monitor all the key risk issues early on.

“At RP we have the processes and control mechanisms in place to ensure all risks are identified at the commencement of a project, from the compliance of the cladding replacement material itself, to the potential impact of the works on business operations,” says Cameron. “This early identification can make a significant difference in project costs and outcomes.”

More than one way to reach compliance – collaboration is key

It is worth noting that cladding compliance projects are not just a matter of taking off all current cladding and selecting from a very limited range of replacement façade materials, as solutions can involve an array of options.

“If needed, RP can help clients find an engineered or performance solution,” says Cameron. “Project teams can ensure the building is NCC-BCA compliant through a range of measures that factor in the fire safety of the cladding as well as mitigating features such as sprinkler installation for example.”

When reviewing choices for cladding it is important not only to know the regulations but to assess options against the client’s appetite for risk and the building’s risk categorisation –  hospitals and schools are in a higher risk category than office buildings or factories, for example, as it is harder to evacuate people from them in the case of a fire.

Justine says that the role of the project manager now is to help bridge the gaps in viewpoints and understanding across the project team by making sure all aspects of this complex issue are addressed early on by the relevant consultants.

“I think there is a fear, for example, that fire safety engineers will take a narrow approach to any cladding question but my experience on project teams is to foster a collaborative and open discussion early in the project lifecycle to ensure the solution that is found is right for all parties involved from the BCA to the client, the design team to the end-user,” she says.

“A good project manager will ensure clients receive the right advice at the right time from the right consultants to make the best decision for their business, satisfy the rules of compliance, and avoid future problems.”